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Hanbok: Hidden stories in Hanbok history

[1] Hanbok: Hidden stories in Hanbok history

“Today, I feel like a queen.” This sentiment, shared by the wife of a foreign ambassador who made her way down the catwalk in a Korean royal dress at a Hanbok fashion show, captures the atmosphere that often accompanies showings of Korea’s traditional costume.

 The audience members at the June 2012 Baek Hyun Ju Hanbok fashion show applaud in appreciation as the wives of foreign ambassadors appear on the catwalk for the show's finale (photo: Yonhap News).

The audience members at the June 2012 Baek Hyun Ju Hanbok fashion show applaud in appreciation as the wives of foreign ambassadors appear on the catwalk for the show's finale (photo: Yonhap News).


Organized by the Baek Hyun Ju Hanbok Institute in celebration of the 2012 Miss Daegu Beauty Pageant, the show was held in June in Daegu for foreign audiences, including eight wives of foreign ambassadors to Korea. The event showcased a wide array of Hanbok, from royal dress and official uniforms to modernized versions, all captivating in their colors and details.

 In early 2012, a group of Hanbok enthusiasts took part in a Hanbok March through downtown Seoul (photo courtesy of Ma-Ik-Heul).

In early 2012, a group of Hanbok enthusiasts took part in a Hanbok March through downtown Seoul (photo courtesy of Ma-Ik-Heul).


 Hanbok, or Korean traditional clothing, has become increasingly popular among foreigners. This past spring, an enthusiastic crowd dressed in Hanbok took part in a Hanbok March through downtown Seoul, catching the attention of passersby at Cheonggyecheon Stream and Yeouido. The event was organized by Ma-Ik-Heul, who adopted a Korean name with the same phonetic sound as his English name, Michael.

“What’s great about Hanbok is that it is distinctly Korean,” said Ma. “They do not look like any other type of clothing from anywhere else in the world.” When asked about his motivation for arranging the parade, Ma explained that “the colors are so bright and vivid, and it is even more amazing to see a group of people wearing them together.”

The beauty of Hanbok has been recognized outside of Korea as well, even among several Hollywood stars. During her 2003 visit to Korea, Britney Spears made a public appearance dressed in a pink Hanbok complete with a jokduri headpiece. It was reported at the time that she had made a last-minute decision to wear a Hanbok instead of her prearranged outfit.

Nicky Hilton, during a trip to Korea in 2005, showed off her Hanbok look with a white jeogori top and black chima, or skirt, with a white ribbon tied around her waist. In an interview, she said she had looked for an opportunity to try on Hanbok because she had seen her sister Paris Hilton wearing it previously. “I feel comfortable in the dress, and it is beautiful,” she remarked.

Korean-Canadian actress Sandra Oh, who gained popularity for her role in the hit drama Grey’s Anatomy, brought new attention to Hanbok when she arrived at the 2008 Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony wearing a Hanbok-inspired dress. Of special interest to fans and red carpet commentators was the wide ribbon tied elegantly in front of Oh’s chest in the form of an otkorum, or traditional bow. Other celebrities who have modeled Hanbok include actor Nicolas Cage, who dressed up in a Hanbok with wife Alice Kim for their 2004 wedding, and actress Jessica Alba, who wore a modern Hanbok design for an interview during her April 2012 visit to Korea.

 Britney Spears (left), Sandra Oh (center), and Nikky Hilton (right) are among the Hollywood stars who have shown their appreciation for Hanbok in recent years (photos: Yonhap News).

Britney Spears (left), Sandra Oh (center), and Nikky Hilton (right) are among the Hollywood stars who have shown their appreciation for Hanbok in recent years (photos: Yonhap News).


Now receiving international attention, Hanbok has been a treasured tradition in Korean society for over 1,600 years. For the people of Korea, Hanbok is a part of the country’s national history and cultural heritage, having been carefully handed down over the generations. Although no records document the exact dates of the Hanbok’s first appearance in Korea, ancient wall murals from the Goguryeo Kingdom provide a rare look at Hanbok in its earliest stages.

Mural paintings from the Goguryeo Kingdom show early styles of Hanbok Mural paintings from the Goguryeo Kingdom show early styles of Hanbok (photo: Han-style.com).
The evolution of Hanbok

Hanbok typically consists of an upper garment called jeogori worn with trousers (baji) or a wraparound skirt (chima). Conventionally, the open arms of the jeogori have been said to represent the warmth and embrace of the Korean people while the voluminous skirts symbolize space and freedom. The traditional attire is not form-fitting but rather free-flowing, so that it is convenient to wear, no matter one’s body type.

Baji is usually worn by men and chima by women, but mural paintings dating back to the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. - 668 A.D.) show that there was originally no distinct difference in Hanbok styling by sex. In these murals, both men and women wore wide-sleeved jeogori long enough to cover their hips over trousers or skirts. The cut of the design differed noticeably depending on the wearer’s social status or occupation. Someone in the lower class, who was likely to perform more manual labor, would typically wear relatively shorter jeogori with wider sleeves to maximize comfort while working.

Also during this time, the design of the women’s chima resembled the pleated skirts of western fashion, except for the wide waistband that was tied above the chest. The high placement of the waistband gave the skirts a billowy look and allowed for greater freedom of movement. This design was useful in ensuring the comfort as well as modesty of the women of the time, who often carried out their household chores in various sitting and squatting positions.

Later, in the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392), as a result of influence from nearby Mongolia, the traditional design of the jeogori underwent a change, adopting shorter lengths and narrower sleeves. The most noticeable change was the addition of the otgoreum, the bow tied in front of the chest, which replaced the previous practice of tying a waistband with long sashes. The otgoreum is one of the most popular elements of the Hanbok today.

 The design of Hanbok has changed with the passing of time. Pictured are differing designs for women's Hanbok from the 16th century (left) and the 18th century (right) (photo: Han-style.com).

The design of Hanbok has changed with the passing of time. Pictured are differing designs for women's Hanbok from the 16th century (left) and the 18th century (right) (photo: Han-style.com).


The Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) was a decisive turning point in the otherwise gradual transformation of Hanbok, with the women’s jeogori in particular being worn much shorter and tighter than in previous periods. In the middle of the Joseon era, the jeogori was being worn higher above the waist, and by the late 19th century, it came up to the chest and was worn with an additional wide sash banded around the chest. In the mid 20th-century, however, this trend was reversed, and the jeogori once again saw longer lengths that typically hit a little above the waist.

During the Japanese colonial period, women looking to express a more modern femininity adopted a new Hanbok style, pairing shorter chima with white jeogori. At the same time, with the wider availability and supply of Western-style clothes and fabrics, the Hanbok began to lose its former place in the mainstream of fashion and apparel. Today, the Hanbok is typically worn only for holidays and special occasions, its design and look appealing more to comfort and sensibility than previous, more ornate versions.

The Hanbok has undergone various changes throughout its more than 1,600-year history, and the transformations continue to this day as specialty designers introduce modern reinterpretations of the traditional design on catwalks and stages around the world. In recent years, numerous foreign media outlets have expressed admiration for the elegance and beauty of the Hanbok, including France’s Le Monde, which called the Hanbok a “costume of the wind,” praising the way the clothes drape over the natural curves of the body in smooth, flowing lines while retaining an airy, voluminous look.

 For the people of Korea, Hanbok is a part of the country’s national history and cultural heritage, having been carefully handed down over the generations (photo: Yonhap News).

For the people of Korea, Hanbok is a part of the country’s national history and cultural heritage, having been carefully handed down over the generations (photo: Yonhap News).


“Hanbok is an element of Korean culture and lifestyle that can easily be shared and appreciated with non-Koreans,” said leading Hanbok designer Lee Young Hee. As the Hanbok continues to receive growing international attention, the charms and creative possibilities of Korea’s traditional costume will become things to be discovered and enjoyed by all.

To know more about Korean clothing
To experience the actual Korean traditional culture

By Lee Seung-ah
Korea.net Staff Writer

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